April 3, 2018 / 7:51 PM / 21 days ago

Colombia kidnappers demand prisoner exchange for Ecuadorean reporters

BOGOTA (Reuters) - A group of dissident former FARC rebels is demanding a prisoner exchange in return for the release of two Ecuadorean journalists and their driver, kidnapped over a week ago on the border with Colombia, the hostages said in a video released on Tuesday.

Colombian TV channels aired the video, which shows reporter Javier Ortega, photographer Paul Rivas and driver Efrain Segarra, of Ecuador’s El Comercio newspaper, chained by the neck and explaining that the group is conditioning their freedom on the release of three dissidents imprisoned in Ecuador.

“In the hands of the Ecuadorean government are our lives. We just want to say that they are asking for a prisoner exchange. They ask for the three prisoners for our three lives,” said Ortega.

The group, which calls itself the Oliver Sinisterra Front, is one of several gangs of dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas, who largely demobilized last year under a peace deal with the government.

The dissidents rejected the accord and have continued drug trafficking activities on Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador, sometimes attacking Ecuadorean security forces.

“The only thing asked by the Oliver Sinisterra Front is the exchange, nothing else,” Ortega said, before adding he and his colleagues were physically healthy but emotionally distraught.

Ecuador’s government said in a statement on Tuesday it would make every necessary effort to liberate the hostages.

“The video is heartbreaking, seeing them with chains around their necks, but at least we have the comfort of them being OK,” Cristhian Segarra, the son of driver Segarra, told journalists. “The conditions are clear - their lives are in the hands of the Ecuadorean state.”

Colombia is offering a reward of more than $100,000 for information leading to the capture or killing of the group’s leader, Walter Artizala, who goes by the name Guacho.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota and Alexandra Valencia in Quito; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Peter Cooney

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